On November 10 2015, this Fabergé gold, diamond and demantoid bangle was auctioned at Christie’s Magnificent Jewels sale in Geneva for 30.000 CHF. The bracelet was, according to the lot note, presented by Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in 1896 in Nizhny Novgorod. Not much more information is given with the bracelet, but it plays a central role in the tragedy of Nicholas’ reign. It is closely linked to a third, not well known bad omen in his Coronation year, that occurred right before the Emperor and Empress awarded this bracelet.
In 1896 demantoid – a green variety of garnet – was very much a Russian and imperial stone. The only known deposits were located in the Ural, near to the city of Yekaterinburg. After its discovery in 1868, it became a favourite stone of Peter Carl Fabergé, and of the Romanovs. Ironically, Yekaterinburg is also the place where Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were brutally murdered by the revolutionaries in 1918.
1896: The Year of the Bad Omens
1896 should have been a glorious year for Nicholas and Alexandra. But right before their Coronation in Moscow, the Minister for Foreign Affairs suddenly died. The Coronation festivities got drenched in blood when thousands of Russians lost their lives in a massive stampede during one of the public celebrations on the Khodynka Field outside Moscow. Both events were widely regarded as bad omens for Nicholas’ reign, after which he experienced difficulties in gaining trust of the Russian people. A third, lesser known, bad omen happened as well, when the Imperial Couple gave this bracelet.
The All-Russia Exhibition
On June 9 1896 the All-Russia Exhibition opened in Nizhny Novgorod. Nicholas II funded this prestigious exhibition that showcased Russian industrial and artistic achievements in nearly 70 buildings and temporary constructions and more than 120 pavilions of companies. The Imperial Couple planned to visit the exhibition soon after their Coronation, but decided to postpone it due to the Khodynka tragedy. By postponing the visit the Emperor avoided having to invite their Royal and Imperial guests from all over Europe with them to the exhibition, while at the same time the right safety measures could be implemented to prevent another tragedy.
The Third Bad Omen
It is unknown whether the Imperial Couple was aware of the third bad omen that happened. In early August, Dutch newspapers reported the arrival of Nicholas and Alexandra at the exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, and the storm that happened right before it and caused great damage to the buildings on the exhibition grounds. The storm also tore to shreds the Imperial Flag at the entrance of the exhibition in which Nicholas invested so much money and prestige.
Thanks to the Swedish engineer Anton Carlsund, who was present when the storm happened, and to Brita Asbrink’s work published on branobelhistory.com, we know about the third bad omen in great detail:
Everything was in place early on the day the imperial couple was expected. The men wore full-dress uniform or tail coats and the ladies wore large toiles with lovely hats. The hours passed, the heat was terrible and the air close and oppressive. At about eleven o’clock, a few small clouds could be seen in the east and the sky suddenly darkened. It was one of those thunderstorms that usually discharge themselves across Russia’s wide steppes. The thunderstorm approached, swirling up dust, followed by lighting and rain. Everyone sought shelter. The storm came in over the exhibition area and destroyed everything in its path, Anton Carlsund tells us. Rain and hail came like a deluge from above, flashes of lightning and bangs shook the ground, the fragile buildings creaked, the roofs yielded, windows cracked, hail formed great piles between the exhibition stands of textiles and luxury items. The whole event lasted only a few minutes but caused total devastation.
“What does this mean?”, Carlsund heard an old Russian exclaim. “This is the third sign. First the foreign minister dies at the imperial procession, then people are trampled to death at the Khodinka field and now the imperial flag is torn to shreds. How will it end for this emperor?” The exhibition area was restored in 24 hours and the imperial visitors arrived the very next day.
The lot text accompanying the bracelet in the auction catalogue states that it was acquired by Nicholas and Alexandra at Fabergé in 1890 for 405 roubles and given by them during a visit to Nizhny Novgorod in 1896. Since no other Imperial visits to this city are known in this year, it is safe to assume Nicholas and Alexandra presented it to someone during their visit to the All-Russia exhibition, within days after the third bad omen happened
A report of this visit in a Dutch newspaper mentions that the organizing committee presented Nicholas and Alexandra with gifts, and explicitly names ‘a gold miniature basket with lilies of the valley made of pearls, with leaves of nephrite and adorned with brilliants’. This is the famous Fabergé Lilies of the Valley Basket from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation. The Fabergé diamond and demantoid bracelet would have been an equally suitable return gift by the Emperor and Empress to, for example, a member
of the organizing committee: made by their favourite jeweller, with a double trefoil design – a central motive in Russian Orthodoxy, being the symbol of the Holy Trinity – made with through-and-through Russian stones… that were mined in the very same area where Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were murdered, 22 years after this third bad omen happened.